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Review: To Get Into Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Drop All Your Expectations

While Kendrick Lamar pulling from the past for To Pimp A Butterfly is hard to digest for some, it's ultimately what makes the LP a "classic" candidate.

Kendrick Lamar's deviation from the norm and pulling from the past may be off-putting for some, but it's ultimately what'll elevate To Pimp A Butterfly's "classic" candidacy.

Before we start talking about anything, wipe your mind clean of whatever Kendrick Lamar you think you know. Un-feel the wave of chills from his good kid, M.A.A.D city—fraught with its barbed lyrics and frantic professions against an orchestra of beats—as it described a youth coming up in Compton to a tee. Disregard the spitter that (respectfully) smoked every compadre standing beside him during TDE's 2013 BET Honors cypher. Ignore the man whose name was tatted on tongues for months following the annihilation that was his guest verse on Big Sean's "Control." Forget everything you thought you knew about that Kendrick Lamar before approaching his left-steering musical backtrack, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Kendrick's long awaited sophomore LP arrived without warning in the wee hours of the morning, one full week ahead of its March 23 release date. Aside from the dropped bomb nature of its release—listeners up past bedtime were forced into a FOMO-driven part two of the Black Messiah listening session D'Angelo caused back in December—TPAB was an even bigger surprise than listeners were bargaining for. Instead of thumping beats and Cali-saturated soundscapes, Butterfly swaps in jazz horns and G-Funk overtones, forcing us to redefine what the sound of hip hop is right now. Based on Twitter chatter alone, the masses are split. Many professed their love for it instantly, praising its nostalgic elements and crediting it for prompting an hour-long two-step. Others voiced their desire for more of the Kendrick they felt they were robbed of. To Pimp A Butterfly may or may not be exactly what people "wanted" or "expected" to hear, but it's definitely something we needed.

Buried within the album are valuable lessons in patience and slowing down when it comes to listening to music. Existing as a minority amongst hip hop's pit of empty-caloried fast-food music, TPAB requires layered listening. Careful chewing. Savoring. Digesting. Being a lazy consumer and putting it down after one quick listen leads to missing all the assorted flavors present on the plate. Like the conversation starters present on the fiery and militant "The Blacker The Berry" and introspective "Complexion." The diversity of funk and soul samples like Boris Gardiner's "Every N***** Is A Star" for "Wesley's Theory," "Momma" borrowing Lalah Hathaway's "On Your Own" and The Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady" for "i." The spoken word pieces scattered throughout, manifested as a cheeky "For Free?" interlude, a soapbox speech in the middle of an "i" performance and during a wide-eyed interview with immortal rap royalty on "Mortal Man." Butterfly shouldn't be rushed through in search of a song to blast at ig'nant levels in the car (although "King Kunta" and "Alright" are strong contenders). There's just too much to marinate on.

In addition to Kendrick's consistent lyrical acrobatics and detailed taletelling methods (a must listen for this is "How Much A Dollar Cost"), Butterfly's biggest strength lies in its feels. It's an ambience album full of aural color and emotional depth. K. Dot, his production crew (our hats are tipped to Flying Lotus, Sounwave, Terrace Martin and Thundercat) and his perked ears for musicality use sophisticated instrumentation and meticulous sonics to create surround sound moods. Take the groovy yet sensual "These Walls." The intimacy is palpable with its exasperated moans, wailing wind instruments, deep melodies and free styling electric keys. The tenor coos, faint scatting horns, drowsy background vocals and driving percussion of the upbeat "Alright" sends the body into a state of celebratory release without so much as having to think about it.

The album's not all sweet smiles and uplifting moments, though. It gets dark. On Butterfly, Kendrick treads into the side of his mind that depression once clouded. Hearing the painfully descriptive "u" is reminiscent to feeling an old wound slowly open up again. "Where's your antennas, where is the influence you speak of?" he sobs, harsh words slurring between glass clinks and audible gulps of liquor. "You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her/I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' failure you ain't no leader/I never liked you, forever despise you I don't need you." During the self-deprecation session, he's cooped up in a hotel room gasping with the kind of breathlessness that comes after a long cry when the body is tired of tears but the heart isn't.

The beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly being the followup to good kid, M.A.A.D city is that they're more alike than you think. Sonically, Kendrick continues to utilize the voices on his album for more than just the verses. In both albums, he builds each song from the ground level up, using voices primarily as colors and instruments (Rapsody lends the only guest verse on the new project). On Butterfly, Anna Wise, Bilal, James Fauntleroy, Taz Arnold aka Ti$a and others paint the rich blues, purples and blacks on the backgrounds of his songs, setting the deep tone. The same goes for his own vocal chords. At times it's tough and gravely (for both "Backseat Freestyle" and "The Blacker The Berry," and at others it's in a higher register, nymphy and introspective (for both "Swimming Pools" and the "For Sale?" interlude).

Although the sonic differences are immediately audible decade-wise, he hasn't compromised the complexity of his storytelling on Butterfly. good kid, M.A.A.D city was a concept album showing us what a single day in the crazy city of Compton looked like from behind his eyes, from harmless shenanigans with the homies and hating his grandfather's alcoholism to witnessing the shooting death of a friend and feeling the need to sing about those who have passed. In To Pimp A Butterfly, the themes are more broad but still touch on the things that Kendrick has absorbed during his matriculation through life. He speaks on the dynamic that he has with society both as a celebrity and as a black man. The hate and skewed relationships he's experienced during his ascent. The tough love and encouragement he gives back to his community whenever he can. Inner battles between pride and accountability when it comes to racial identity and creativity. Picking apart and appreciating the different quirks of the black experience.

Within months of its release, good kid, M.A.A.D city was quickly stamped a classic and, for the most part, it was undisputed. It's far too early to dole out such weighty accolades for To Pimp A Butterfly, but only a fool would profess that it isn't an important piece of work, especially for our time. For some, it'll be hard to appreciate Butterfly for what it is because, unfortunately, pointless inquiries like "Where's old Kendrick?" are still being thrown into the discussion. Not bothering to look beyond the rapper to see the artist expanding his craft and paving the way for others to do the same. Seeing these sonic alterations as shortcomings instead of the path to evolving into something even greater. Someone potentially legendary. Judging by the title and the poems stitched throughout the LP, all Kendrick wants to do is stretch the wings that have been cramped up under him for a while. Guys, the good kid is clearly a man now. Let him grow. —Stacy-Ann Ellis

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Review: Anderson .Paak Reroutes To 'Ventura'

Just five months after his last album Oxnard, singer/producer/drummer/entertainer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak is back with Ventura, his fourth studio LP. Depending on who you ask, the new project is either a surprise second course, or a round of comped desserts to make up for an overdone entree.

The Korean-African-American musician born Brandon Paak Anderson spent the first half of this decade intermittently recording under the name Breezy Lovejoy, converting rock songs into R&B, and drumming for an American Idol alumnus. In 2015, he emerged into the national spotlight thanks to six features on Compton, the long-gestating Dr. Dre album formerly known as Detox. He took advantage of the attention and released two full-lengths in 2016: Malibu was a sprawling solo album that showed him equally deft with bass-heavy club tracks or Sam Cooke-esque soul. Yes Lawd!, a collaboration with producer Knxwledge under the name NxWorries, was a chopped up stoner odyssey, Madvillainy if DOOM could sing as well as he spit. That same year, .Paak announced that he had signed to Dr. Dre’s label Aftermath in a brief but celebratory video featuring the rap mogul himself.

.Paak took nearly three years to unleash the full power of the PR by Dre machine: he debuted the lead single on Zane Lowe, soundtracked an Apple ad, and compared the album to landmarks like The Blueprint and The College Dropout. When Oxnard finally dropped last November, reviews were generally positive but mixed, and it peaked at 11 on the Billboard album charts. Enough fans felt the singer had strayed from his post-millennial soul sound that his own mother felt the need to clap back. With a sprawling summer tour schedule looming, .Paak released his follow-up, Ventura, last Friday.

To hear the artist tell it, that was always the plan. “I told Dre when we were maybe about 80 percent into the Oxnard record that I wanted to actually do two records and he started scratching his head. ...I was like, ‘Let me do two, man. One will be gritty, one will be pretty,’” .Paak told HipHopDX. It’s clear that both albums were compiled from the same sessions, but they are distinct. While Anderson .Paak’s last project emphasized the Michael Bay-sized hip-hop beats that Dr. Dre perfected at the turn of the millennium, Ventura has a more soulful sound. It doesn’t slap, it grooves.

As the cover portrait of the artist with his child suggests, Ventura is an intimate record. He’s focused on sex and love in the long term, the ups and downs of relationships years after the introductory one night stands other pop stars sing about. His blunt-burnt yet sweet voice conjures a charming scoundrel character on record, a dad celebrating Friday night with a popped collar and glass overflowing with dark liquor. It’s a compelling persona .Paak previously exaggerated to cartoonish proportions on Yes Lawd!

Here, his pen shines on the small moments that hint at big feelings. On “Jet Black,” .Paak and his girl are getting physical for the first time in some time, sharing the peak of an unfamiliar high. “It’s been a while, baby, come here,” .Paak beckons. The house beat burbles with slap bass and descending organ as Brandy sings “Feels like someone lifted me.”

.Paak heats up a similarly chilled relationship on the luxuriant “Make It Better.” “Meet me at the hotel motel, though we got a room at home, go to a place that we don't know so well,” he murmurs. Over a laidback thump, .Paak tries to reignite passion in order to save his relationship. His voice desperately yelps on the chorus as the pressure he feels to reconnect emerges, but it quickly subsides into sweet nothings. Smokey Robinson’s backing vocals float in like he’s playing on a radio outside the lovers’ motel room. They’re buried low enough in the mix to suggest that if you’re cool enough to get a feature from a quiet storm legend, you’re cool enough not to rub it in.

Ventura’s precursor was stocked with verses from luminaries like Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, and Kendrick Lamar, but Ventura’s only guest rapper, Andre 3000, appears on the first track, “Come Home.” It’s a rough start. The song opens with a piano melody that loops but never resolves, creating an anxiety similar to an iPhone alarm clock tone. .Paak begs for someone to come home, but it’s unconvincing, like he doesn’t yet understand why they left in the first place.

While Smokey’s feature is masterfully underplayed, Andre 3000’s verse gets a garish spotlight. Since Idlewild, 3 Stacks has made a habit of releasing guest verses on occasion in lieu of making an album of his own. When he’s on, he’s one of the best rappers alive, but “Come Home” is a rare misstep. The Outkast rapper fills entire bars with syllables about asking for forgiveness on a moped with a puppy, but it doesn’t feel charismatic. Fitting Willy Wonka, Tilikum, and Billabong into the same verse is admirable in a technical sense, but it feels like Andre’s “Rap God” technique for its own sake.

The album finishes much stronger. The last track “What Can We Do?” is built around a chiming sitar, and it savors contentment like a West Coast “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” .Paak duets with Nate Dogg on the hook, using recordings made before the legend’s untimely death in 2011. The deceased vocalist was a key G-funk ingredient, but his voice sits comfortably in a sunnier sound. It’s a credit to .Paak that the faux studio banter that closes the song feels natural.

The other features are similarly complementary to .Paak. Lalah Hathaway coos in unison with him on the disco half of “Reachin’ 2 Much.” Jazmine Sullivan plays the other woman, forced to climb in through the fire escape to retrieve her rings and “Good Heels” the morning after. Only Sonyae Elise spars with her host, offering a righteous rebuttal to his demands for the women in his life and sarcastically suggesting that he might be the “Chosen One.”

.Paak name drops to a few key inspirations in his lyrics as well. Later in “Chosen One,” he raps, “Heard your fans want to keep you in the underground, cool, when I blow up say I did it for MF DOOM,” a reminder of his pre-fame time in LA’s crate digging underground scenes. He contemplates leaving a relationship on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and all he can offer is “I’ll see you next lifetime, baby, what did Badu say?”

Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah diptych a decade ago, .Paak’s lyrics about current events are enough to provoke reflection without detracting from the physical pull of the grooves. He nimbly raps “Chicken wings and sushi, I’ve gotten used to the perks, narrowly escaping the holy war on the turf” on “Yada Yada.” Lead single “King James” praises people with public platforms for refusing to go along with a murderous status quo, promising to jump over any wall and bring the neighbors with. In the midst of his “Winners Circle” flirtation, .Paak raps “When I get the gushy, I go dumb like the President.” It’s not a jaw-dropping lyric, but it’s comforting to know that a bar that direct will be performed in arenas across America this summer.

Anderson .Paak’s talent is unquestionable and his spotlight is well-deserved, especially knowing he’s endured homelessness and familial legal trouble on his come-up. To his credit, he appears to be striving towards a magnum opus, a landmark album that becomes a household name like The Chronic or Midnight Marauders. Despite his strong catalog plus a plethora of excellent features, .Paak has yet to deliver that opus. (Yes Lawd!’s destiny as a cult classic aside.) Ventura is a fun, pleasant listen, and an improvement on the bombast of Oxnard. Like most double albums, one gets the feeling that there’s a great forty minute playlist waiting to be assembled from their best tracks.

Ventura ultimately doesn’t quite match the highs of his earlier albums, but it’s a leisurely stroll in the right direction. Nearly a decade into his recording career, it’s proof that .Paak can always find his way to the next beach.

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Saint Records

Solange's ‘When I Get Home’ Is A Reminder That Black Stories Don’t Have To Be Burdensome

Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat At The Table concluded with “Closing: The Chosen Ones” and on it, Master P proclaimed, “We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty.” It was an optimistic message to end a project reflecting on the burdens that African Americans carry because of white supremacy. On her follow-up, When I Get Home, Solange is in alignment with Master P’s focus on the glory. She shifts her storytelling to a black experience that isn’t troubled by the traumas caused by whiteness.

Picking up where the last album ended, Solange signals her mood change on When I Get Home’s opening track, “Things I Imagined.” On the final verse, she repeats in soothing harmonies that she’s “taking on the light.” In the 18 tracks ahead, she does so by illuminating and crowning the beauty of Houston, her hometown, in a way she hasn’t before in her art.

The singer spoke on reconnecting with Houston’s Third Ward and surrounding parts of the city and state to make this album during a screening event attended by VIBE’s Desire Thompson. “Certain things that might've been mundane to me visually started to really enrich me and enrich my spirit,” she said. Solange has lived in Idaho, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New York, and currently New Orleans, yet there is nothing like the thrills her hometown offers her. “I think [that] just growing up in Texas is such a spirited place, any given time of day you can see and experience something that's so unique and so grounded in our culture here.”

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“When I Get Home” the film coming out tonight at 4pm PT/7pm ET on @applemusic and i couldn’t be more proud ! Link in the bio 🖤🖤 y’all so damn much!

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Through music and film, Solange offers another narrative of black Southern culture that’s much more than the usual themes of slavery, lynchings and segregation. It’s a celebration of heritage that has existed, before these interruptions, and continues to thrive today. Actress Lynn Whitfield reminds audiences that black storytelling doesn’t have to exist solely be painful in an episode of Netflix’s Strong Black Lead podcast.

“There are dynamics of families and riches...and traditions of black family that have not a damn thing to do with white people, racism, slavery or anybody else,” Whitfield said. “Some of our problems are just our own problems. Some of our complexity is just ours. And I want to own that,” she continued.

Solange widens those possibilities with the experimental and collaborative When I Get Home. The singer offers 19 nostalgic dreamy jazz-focused meditations, propelled by psychedelic synths and chopped and screwed beats. It feels like the soundtrack to a joy ride at night with Solange in the driver’s seat guiding us around Houston. The accompanying movie invokes imagery of black cowboys, rodeos, 90s hairstyles, Nokia cell phones, Houston architecture and afro-futurist treatments such as 3D animations and surrealist fantasies. Solange also used BlackPlanet, the black-focused online community that predates the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram era, to tease the album before releasing on March 1.

Solange’s album arrived at the end of Black History Month and the beginning of Women’s History Month. Whether intentional or coincidental, it’s black women who narrate the project. The interludes sample media footage of black women poets, artists, actresses and spiritual gurus. And the interludes are where so much of the experimentation happens on the album. “S McGregor (interlude)” features the voices of Solange’s hometown heroes Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad over piano keys and a haunting chopped and screwed vocal. According to her mother, Tina Knowles, the song title is named after the street where Allen and Rashad’s father lived. On “Nothing Without Intention” Solange lays down another hazy chopped and screwed beat, and in the final seconds we hear the Goddess Lula Belle state “do nothing without intention,” which is borrowed from her YouTube video, "Florida Water For Cleansing and Clearing.” And the words just seem to stick with you.

By this point of the album, it’s clear Solange’s intentions for this project is to explore her creative range. The album’s experimentation is credited to her love for Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through A Secret Life of Plants. Solange was also influenced by Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliot, The Sun Ra Arkestra, and Aaliyah, as outlined in the New York Times last October. Solange won’t be contained and let it be known on “Can I Hold the Mic,” which starts off with an interview clip of Princess and Diamond of Crime Mob. Solo then blends in a spoken word.

“I can't be a singular expression of myself, there's too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many…” Solange proclaims over zig-zagging chords.

Solange gives us those varying parts of herself throughout the album. Sometimes she’s free-spirited like on the all-star “Almeda” (a road in Houston), produced by Pharrell and featuring The-Dream, Metro Boomin, and Playboi Carti. “Brown skin, brown face/Brown leather, brown sugar,” Solange chants on the verses. Solange also makes another reference to Florida Water, a cologne used for cleansing rituals by Santeria and West African Vodun practitioners. The track invokes imagery of the height of gatherings, where black people can safely let down their guards and ease into bliss. The hardcore drum and bass and playful ad-libbing make this a celebratory anthem that’s speaker rattling hip-hop at its core. When I Get Home has hip-hop all over it, with keyboards from Tyler, the Creator on “Down With the Clique”; the Metro Boomin-produced “Stay Flo”; a Gucci Mane feature on “My Skin My Logo”; and fellow Houstonian, Scarface on “(Not Screwed) Interlude.”

There are moments when her sensual side breaks through, especially on the groovy “Way to the Show.” Her feathery vocals beckon a person she deeply desires, while she makes a reference to Houston’s eclectic car culture. “Call me, even on the way to the show/Way to the show, candy paint down to the floor.” Singer Cassie provides angelic background vocals. On the velvety “Jerrod” she continues panting for physical contact. “Come and say the word and you know you gon' hit it,” she sings, giving the green light.

When she takes us to an introspective space, her vocals are on full display as she exercises hearty rips and runs. For instance, there’s the woozy, “Dreams,” reminding listeners to remain steadfast in chasing them. (“Dreams, they come a long way, not today”). On the soul-stirring “Time (Is),” Solange reunites with Sampha to be in conversation with her fears. She pushes past them by leaping into action. “But the way to do it/Just (Yay)/Do us just/ Then you’ll know/ Go.”

The fear of releasing a body of work that’s true to her current creative moods could have been crippling for Solange, especially when following up on a heralded project like A Seat at The Table. When an artist returns with an album that’s experimental compared to its predecessor, its reception could be divided, or worse, written off completely. Recent examples of this being done successfully include Kendrick Lamar’s transition from the Compton-centered good kid, m.A.A.d city to the jazz and funk-laden To Pimp a Butterfly, or Rihanna going from her usual pop bangers on Unapologetic to the vibey Anti. But there are instances when artists don’t receive the same love for switching up, such as Anderson .Paak’s move from the soulful Malibu to a more hip-hop driven Oxnard, or A$AP Rocky’s transition from a more favorable AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP to less trendy sounds on Testing.

But Solange chooses to show up uninhibited anyway. Although she’s taken some risks sonically by calling on jazz fusion, she modernizes it by blending hip-hop soundscapes, especially by threading in the influences of DJ Screw, who defined the sounds of her former stomping grounds and mainstream hip-hop.

Solange returning to her roots for inspiration can easily be tied to “Sankofa,” a word from the Akan people of Ghana that means “go back and fetch.” “It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress,” Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte, writes. Solange’s When I Get Home does just that. She achieves creative evolution and the progression of black storytelling through music. And while doing so, she proudly points back to her Houston origins by sprinkling in numerous layers, references and clues. If you know, you know. If you don’t, prepare to be transformed.

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2 Chainz performs onstage during the iHeartRadio album release party with 2 Chainz at iHeartRadio Theater on March 04, 2019 in Burbank, California.
Kevin Winter

With ‘Rap Or Go To The League,’ 2 Chainz Isn’t Underrated Anymore: Review

It’s hard to believe that 2 Chainz still thinks he’s underrated in 2019.

“I know I am underrated,” he reaffirmed to Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club. “If you do a survey, people will sleep on me because sometimes they don’t understand it. It don’t bother me. I’ve always been highly confident. It’s a thin line between cockiness and confidence. And sometimes, I straddle both of them.”

Cockiness and confidence are how 2 Chainz has stayed on top of his game. It’s been his goal to be respected as one of the best MCs in hip-hop, regardless of how many people slept on his previous mixtapes and albums. Whether you know him as Tity Boi, the Drench God, or any other of his many AKAs, he is certainly the hardest working rapper who has earned his spot, rapping alongside the likes of Raekwon, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Drake, Pharrell, and Nicki Minaj since leaving Playaz Circle, his duo under Ludacris' label Disturbing Tha Peace. Throughout his catalog, which includes fan favorites T.R.U. REALigion and his Trap-A-Velli series, Chainz has shown immense growth as an artist, constantly drawing from his personal stories to create anthems for every occasion – hitting licks, throwing birthday parties, making your momma proud. Chainz always got one for you to walk in and then turn up to.

The 41-year-old rapper wants to continue maturing as an artist, hoping his music delivers on quality so he gets the credit he deserves. After the widespread acclaim of 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, with many critics calling it his best work at the time, Chainz wasn’t satisfied with the praise. Recognizing his peers have been using their platforms to educate on subjects like ownership (Jay-Z) and criminal justice reform (Meek Mill), Chainz saw an opportunity to make another play, one that involves addressing a common misconception about what defines success among young black men in poor communities.

 

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With the height of racial tensions across America I felt I should do my part in explaining some of the brain washing formulas used in my community , this album not only touches on those who did succeed thru entertainment but those who didn't ! Welcome to Rap or Go TO THE LEAGUE ! My 5th solo studio album and project that shows continued growth , success , and motivation which is playing a role in the shift of the trap paradigm ✌🏿⛓ #ROGTTL @airsignusa

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Feb 17, 2018 at 11:29am PST

Rap or Go to the League, his fifth studio album, was announced in February 2018 as his version of “black excellence.” “In my culture, in my community, we were often told [that] it was the only thing and the only way we could get out of the circumstances we were put in,” he explains of the title. At the height of racial tensions across America, he elaborated on the concept as dissecting “some of the brainwashing formulas used in my community.” Chainz is a product of College Park, Georgia and considered a success story, evolving from being an ex-drug dealer and ex-athlete to a veteran rapper who has gotten better with age.

It’s why LeBron James, the executive producer and A&R of Rap or Go to the League, was perfect for the album’s messaging. The Lakers star was faced with his own set of criticisms when he talked politics during an ESPN interview, inciting journalist Laura Ingraham to attack his views. “Keep the political commentary to yourself,” she infamously said on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle. “Or as someone once said, ‘Shut up and dribble.’”

Chainz recognized that LeBron is not only a talented basketball player but plays an important position in hip-hop culture as a curator and celebrity influencer. Instagram Stories of him jamming and scrunching his face to early records by Tee Grizzley, Meek Mill, and Nipsey Hussle, as well as convincing Kendrick Lamar to drop untitled unmastered., are hallmarks of a good A&R. He is more than an athlete, using his voice to effect change, and nowhere near as one-dimensional as Ingraham suggested. In many ways, Rap or Go to the League is a justification that these two can step up and prove their doubters wrong: Chainz can be considered in the G.O.A.T. conversation, and LeBron can empower the youth to believe any dream is possible. You can rap. You can go to the league. You can be more than what society tells you to be.

Chainz uses his own narrative to drive these points on Rap or Go to the League. If LeBron didn’t convince you that Chainz was coming with substance, the album’s opener, titled “Forgotten,” sets the bar of how weighted his songs will be. Marsha Ambrosius anchors Chainz’ emotional lyrics on his hoop dreams turned to nightmares. The second verse is more telling as he reveals how he felt after learning about the murder of his friend and former Disturbing tha Peace labelmate Lil’ Fate’s son. “My head achin', hands started shakin' / Foul beyond flagrant / He said, ‘Bro, what I’m supposed to do?’ / I paused, remorseful / We been partners since public school / Kids ain’t supposed to die before us,” he raps. To end on a spoken word poem about the realities of a black boy living in America is Chainz exploring what it means to be socially conscious. It’s his mission to teach lessons now.

 

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@gas by the BIGGEST TRAPPER OF EM ALL !!!! 🙏🏿💪🏿🔥

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Oct 26, 2018 at 5:32pm PDT

Chainz and LeBron wanted this album to be played from top to bottom so listeners can take everything in as a whole. Chainz’s first two albums – Based on a T.R.U. Story and B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME – lacked a cohesion that Rap or Go to the League clearly has grounded in Atlanta while elevating trap music to a new paradigm. Each song is based on a true story of Chainz’s life, where he’ll go from saying he owns his own masters (“Threat 2 Society”) to listing all the possible crimes he’s committed and the people he served back in the day (“Statute of Limitations”). In a full circle moment, Chainz has a legal marijuana business now called GAS Cannabis Co. No rap cap.

Chainz has a lot of pride in being a black entrepreneur, who is here to share his knowledge of success through his music. Topics like property investing to stunting in his own Versace collab are motivational benchmarks, but the messages amplify with his relatable, come-up stories. On songs like “I Said Me” and “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is,” Chainz wants you to know that he isn’t perfect, owning up to his past (“…And my daughter asked me what a drug dealer was? I said ‘me’”) and believing in his passion (“They say that I'm crazy now / They said I was crazy then”) are just some of the keys to unlocking your fullest potential. “Sam” tackles taxes on the wealthy, and the abuse of knowing your hard-earned income will be taken away by the government. Chainz is no stranger to this, using it as a life lesson: just dust your shoulders off and keep it moving.

Consistency is what keeps his fans coming back for more. And 2 Chainz knows he doesn’t need to break his formula, enlisting previous collaborators like Young Thug, Travis Scott, Lil Wayne, and Chance the Rapper to add the necessary bravado to each of his records. Ariana Grande appears on the Amerie-sampling “Rule the World,” which was created after the “7 Rings” misunderstanding, and it is easily a Billboard Hot 100 contender. The idea of 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar sounded dope on paper, surpassing expectations on “Momma I Hit a Lick.” If you needed a reason to go out west this summer, “Girl’s Best Friend” and “2 Dollar Bill” are an excellent back-to-back pair of songs for a cruise on Sunset Boulevard.

With all these all-star features on his resume, is 2 Chainz hot enough for a Jay-Z feature? The subtle homages to Hov – sampling “Lucifer” and “Dead Presidents” – and shouting him out on “Threat 2 Society” over a 9th Wonder beat are all perfect jumpers in form. Chainz has talked about working with Jay more than once, recently name-checking him on “Burglar Bars,” and it seems Jay is willing to collaborate even though he apparently missed this album. It’s a bucket list item that Chainz needs before Hov really retires.

There’s one line on “NCAA,” a boisterous track calling out why college athletes don’t get paid, where Chainz raps, “drop my album off the court and make 'em post it.” Not only is this “caption music” at the highest levels (that guitar line is an A1 bar too), it showcases how much admiration he has from the community during on and off season. Just days after Rap or Go to the League’s release, Diddy, Royce da 5'9", French Montana, and more promoted it on social media, congratulating him on what is unanimously his tightest project he’s ever made.

 

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Man @diddy you fukd me up with this one ..always wondered if you remembered that 😳🤭

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Mar 1, 2019 at 8:44pm PST

2 Chainz isn’t underrated. And even if you still think that after listening to Rap or Go to the League, he’s going to continue bettering himself, pushing boundaries in hip-hop and the intersecting cultures until that validation arrives.

“I ain’t gonna stop being myself, I ain’t gonna stop being highly talented. Qualified,” he said on The Breakfast Club.“I always told myself when I get to the table, whatever table that is, I deserve to be there.”

You deserve it and more, King Chainz.

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